Maintaining full enrollment at any school continues to get harder and harder. With declining natural birth rates, changing customer expectations, and increasing competition, schools are having to work harder and smarter to attract students.
The environment has changed but many schools haven’t changed how they approach enrollment. These are the schools that are struggling.
Diagnosing why a school’s enrollment is struggling can be a challenging activity.
But by talking with hundreds of schools (and thousands of parents), we have identified three key mistakes that schools are making that are impeding their enrollment:
Not prioritizing enrollment at your school
If you have ever read a news article about a school closing, the opening line is always the same, “After years of declining enrollment, school X will be closing its doors.” It doesn’t matter if this school is a new charter school or a private school that has been in operation for over 75 years, lack of enrollment and decreased revenue is generally the reason why schools close.
This is not necessarily something that happens overnight. If you are tracking your enrollment, you can easily identify when enrollment begins to trend lower. However, many schools don’t begin to address this issue until it reaches a crisis point. Marketing your school takes time and if you are expecting results overnight, you will be disappointed.
Your first step in making your school more enrollment oriented is to clearly identify who within the organization is responsible for enrollment at your school. By clearly assigning responsibility, you are creating accountability which is key for driving results.
Do not fall into the trap of hoping that a well-meaning volunteer will step up and answer all of your enrollment challenges. For best results, it really must be a staff member. It also may be tempting to form a committee to tackle this issue. That can work in some situations, but one person must clearly be in charge and have ultimate responsibility and accountability.
Many schools will add this responsibility to the (overworked) principal, an administrator or even the school secretary. I can understand this. Schools are busy places and it can often be difficult to dedicate a single person to this role.
However, you need to think about this carefully. Doing school enrollment right can be a very labor-intensive undertaking. The most successful schools have identified this position as critical and have prioritized assigning a dedicated person to this role. But when you are starting out, that means a temporary trade-off when it comes to resources.
Let’s say your K-8 school has one open position because your 7th-grade Spanish teacher resigned. You decide to hire an enrollment person rather than a Spanish teacher for one year. You will probably have several frustrated parents at this change, but to balance that out, having a dedicated enrollment person brought you in 10 more students. With that additional amount of tuition, you can now hire back a Spanish teacher.
This is because an enrollment person is the only function in your school that will bring in additional revenue! These positions pay for themselves in the form of higher enrollment and higher revenue. Look at this role as an investment, not an expense.
Once you have decided to hire a dedicated enrollment person for your school, the next step is to decide who should fill that role? Many schools will shift a teacher over to this job. I have seen very mixed results with this approach.
Teaching is a skill that requires education and training to be effective. So is marketing and recruiting.
I always advocate to clients that you want to hire somebody who has a sales and marketing background because that is what this job entails — marketing your school within your community and selling your school to prospective parents.
I have seen many schools fail due to low enrollment. But I have never seen one fail that had a dedicated and competent enrollment person on staff.
Believing that your strong “community” drives enrollment
Many schools are very proud of the community that they have created within their school. And having a welcoming and inclusive community is a wonderful asset for any school. Often the presence of a strong community feel can directly contribute to families continuing to stay at the school.
However, having a strong school community is not why families select your school.
When parents, or in the case of a high school, students are looking for a school, they are primarily looking for two things: a strong academic environment and adequate preparation for the student’s next phase of his/her academic career.
In all the interviews, focus groups and surveys that Bright Minds Marketing has conducted for schools, we have never heard a parent claim that the community of the school is the main reason why they selected that school. Yet, many schools believe that their community is their greatest asset when they are marketing their school.
I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it isn’t.
Relying on your community as a messaging strategy also has a few additional disadvantages.
It is experiential. Often, a family or parent will need to be at the school for several months (or even years) before they can begin to experience the benefit of a strong school community.
It is variable depending upon the person experiencing it. Some people may not necessarily “click” with your other parents. If you were to ask that person if the school had a strong community, they would disagree.
It is not something that the school controls. You can’t necessarily force other parents to be welcoming and kind to new families. Though you can have parent ambassador programs, many schools don’t create these sorts of programs and merely hope that new parents will feel welcome.
Relying on word of mouth as their sole marketing activity
One of the first questions that I always ask a new client is; “Tell me how parents learn about your school.” Often, the school will respond that word of mouth is their primary source of referrals.
As it should be.
Most schools will find that around sixty to seventy percent of their referrals are through word of mouth. I always follow this question by asking, “Well, what are you doing to create good word of mouth marketing?” Schools have a much harder time answering that question.
A dirty little secret is that most schools are not doing anything to support word of mouth marketing but are just hoping that parents are having a good experience and are recommending the school. Word of mouth marketing is critical, but it does take some work.
The other pitfall of relying on word of mouth is that it only encompasses the connections of your parents. Depending upon the size of your school’s enrollment, this might be enough. But for most schools, you are going to need to cast a wider net and try to engage with families who might be unfamiliar with your school.
With an ever-changing landscape of more school choices and competition for students, it’s important to audit your enrollment practices to see if you’re making these three mistakes. The good news is that there are remedies to each of these issues.
You will just need to dedicate resources to correct them, but the benefits are unmistakable: keeping strong enrollment allows you to focus on the most important goal of your school; delivering an incredible academic experience to your students.